Engaging Learners With Simulations


Aside perhaps from content domain mastery, it can be argued that the greatest challenge facing educators is engaging the learner. It is the purpose of this synthesis report to discuss applying various techniques and modalities of immersive learning environments to encouraging learner engagement.


Bower et al. (2010) provide a useful framework for categorizing types of pedagogy (pp. 182-183):

Transmissive: defined as unidirectional and from a source of instruction (teacher) to the student, where the student remains passive.

Dialogic: in which the instructor and student or students engage in dialectic.

Constructionist: the student creates some product (report, artistic artifact, computer program, etc.).

Co-constructive: multiple students as a group or community cooperate to create some product as above.

Note the key difference between the set of transmissive and constructionist, and the set of dialogic and co-constructive is what Bower calls “negotiated” pedagogy. They don’t define the term in this paper, but it appears to indicate that the learning experience consists to a significant extent of social/interpersonal activity rather than either passive reception or isolated action. They also specify (or rather suggest) that each has application at different levels of learner mastery. In particular, transmissive learning may be more appropriate for beginning learners, with more active participation expected from them once they have sufficient background to be effective in constructive tasks or to participate in dialog.

O’Connor et al. (2014) provide useful suggestions on what they describe as “Organizing Content.” Specifically, they suggest several approaches:

Setting students problems to solve, as opposed to asking them to simply recite or remember. This leads to the application of principles. The example given is creating a marketing strategy for an older product.

Inquiry learning, especially in the sciences, in which students are required to observe a situation or process and draw conclusions, and then test these conclusions.

Application of narrative and story elements, as opposed to the presentation of dry abstraction or lists of facts to memorize.

Various technologies to expand student experience, e. g.

Creating video content
Shared documents
Remote interview/conversation with, e. g., archaeologists

It is important to always remember the basic principles of adult learning. As O’Connor et al. say (p. 207), building pedagogy on the students’ own experiences and existing knowledge helps to increase both engagement and retention.  See also Knowles. (1996)

The authors also point out that it is critical to take the learners’ various competency levels at the beginning of the process into account. Some will be technologically fluent, others beginners or intimidated by the technology. The same will, of course, apply to other competency areas, such as content knowledge and comfort with participation in group conversations.

One omission I found surprising was the lack of any mention of peer teaching, although the authors do speak extensively about peer “interaction”and sharing.

Finally, I found taxonomy that Blessinger and Wankel (2012, p. 8) use to divide immersive environments by their structure and purpose extremely useful. They break these environments into:

Virtual worlds

A virtual world, in this usage, is a “… computerized shared social space …” The example given is Second Life. They focus, in this system of classification, on social interaction and community-building in a simulated environment.

Academic Games (“Serious” Games)

These are focused on problem-solving and decision-making, and are designed to create or enhance skills in those areas which are then transferable to real-world situations. They also are generally competitive, or scored.


A simulation can resemble a game but is likely to be more structured and uniform, even repetitive. They are often used to practice a skill (and in the author of this report’s practice, a physical skill) in an environment that can be both physically safer and emotionally safer (because failure has reduced consequences). A learner is generally given multiple opportunities to practice in the simulated environment.

Key Technologies

Given the plethora of technologies that are now, or are becoming, available to the educator and course designer, a key part of the design and development process is selecting the appropriate ones. At this time, the author is considering the use of these:

Web 2.0 Features

First and foremost, adding Web 2.0 features to any browser-based aspect of a course seems like an obvious and almost inevitable part of design at this time. Bower et al. (2010 pp. 179) define Web 2.0 as being web technology that includes some combination of social (collaborative) software, micro-content, openness (defined as being freely available), and having “sophisticated” interfaces (here meaning attractive, responsive, and not requiring advanced technical skills to use).

Any project this author works on would certainly incorporate learner comments, for one simple example. It will also have the most “sophisticated” interface possible, in the sense that learners should have the minimum possible additional learning load placed on them in order to learn the tools of learning. More on this topic will be seen below.

Screen Capture and Recording

For static screen images, this author tends to simply use the PrtSc keyboard key and then edit the result in Adobe PhotoShop. There are various tools available to expedite or simplify this process (Jing, Snagit, the Windows Snipping Tool) but they don’t offer enough advantage to abandon a familiar graphics editor.

For video capturing, this author will tend to use Adobe Captivate, again largely for reasons of familiarity (and having access to the software via my employer).

Video Editing and Sharing

Video sharing via YouTube is free of charge and simple to do. The uploader can set a video to be either private or public. Almost any (American) learner will already be familiar with it. There is little motivation to search for alternatives in 2017.

For a single editor, Audacity (http://www.audacityteam.org/) is a good solution, being free, fast, and not too complex. Bowers et al. (2010 p. 187) mention something the current author had never encountered, collaborative video editing via Schwup (http://www.shwup.com), which may well be worth investigating if and when it becomes relevant to a project.

Finally, live video streams via uStream (Bowers et al. 2010 p. 187) are mentioned, but this author can’t immediately think of an educational situation in which that would be a preferred solution over web conferencing using tools like Skype.

Digital Storytelling

As O’Connor et al. (2015, p. 207) argue, adding story elements (or rather, framing instructional content as a story) automatically increases learner engagement. Many technological tools now exist specifically to tell stories. This author has experience with GoAnimate and has encountered media created with XtraNormal (Bower et al. p. 188). Both are effective. Many others such tools exist and a significant selection process would be needed to identify the correct tool for a specific project.

Community Learning

Given the new and changing environment in which learning now takes place, how can the educator improve learning by community-building?

O’Connor et al. (2015) suggest several possibilities that may apply to this author’s practice.

Lateral Participation

By this the authors mean active participation by the learner with actual practitioners, and actual practice, of the discipline which they are learning. Examples would include having learners join a video conference or webinar with practitioners, observe actual experiments or construction over the internet, etc.

Simulations and Virtual Environments

Webinars and the like are becoming a standard educational environment. O’Connor et al (214) recommend taking measures to ensure they are interactive and don’t become “distance lectures.”

“Rich” VR environments such as Second Life, as Blessinger and Wankel (op cit) mention, are especially suitable for social learning—that is specifically, learning social skills and establishing community, as opposed to content-heavy activities.


This author is intrigued by the concept of the “flipped” classroom, in which the student is expected to obtain factual/rote material outside the interactive portion of the learning experience, with instructor and classmate contact time reserved for discussion and group activities. (O’Connor et al., 2015,) This would both promote and take advantage of community learning by simply emphasizing it, and by allowing more time for community interaction.

From O’Connor and Domingo (2017) (as well as other sources) I draw an emphasis on peer interactions of various types. Notably, both they and Bower recommend considering peer evaluation. In the 2017 paper this becomes peer assignment of badges, presumably because peer ratings are generally not part of any summative assessment grade.

O’Connor and Domingo also recommend learner role-playing.

Virtual Environments

As mentioned above, this author will be using Blessinger and Wankel’s taxonomy of immersive environments (op cit). However, at least in their introductory chapter their formulation is open to at least one criticism: it is presumed that these categories do not overlap. In practice, there will inevitably be gray areas and some environments will fall “between the stools” of these classifications.

To select one group of learners for this discussion, high school students attending a STEM program might have been selected for their technical accomplishments. Therefore, this enrichment program would have goals such as having students work on part of a complex task as part of a team, lead a team or subteam, and/or deal with unexpected events in the course of completing a project.

Given these goals, a virtual environment might be designed to have aspects of both Blessinger and Wankel’s Shared World and Game categories. That is, it would involve social interactions and community-building (conceptualized as team-building) as a major priority. It would also involve completing some combination of technical tasks in a simulated environment, in a time-limited manner and with a defined success criterion.

In this hypothetical, aspects of the Simulation, especially repetition, would not be emphasized.


This is, of course, only a superficial and preliminary analysis. I look forward to adding a great deal of flesh to the bare, dry bones that are laid out here.


Blessinger, P. and Wankel, C. “Innovative Approaches in Higher Education: an Introduction to Using Immersive Interfaces.” In Wankel, C., & Blessinger, P. (2012). Increasing student engagement and retention using immersive interfaces (pp 3-14). Bingley : Emerald, 2012.

Bower, M., Hedberg, J. G., & Kuswara, A. (2010). A framework for Web 2.0 learning design. Educational Media International, 47(3), 177-198. doi:10.1080/09523987.2010.518811

Knowles, M. (1996). Adult learning. In R.L. Craig (Ed.), The ASTD training and development handbook: A guide to human resource development (pp. 253-263). New York: McGraw-Hill

O’Connor, E. A. & Domingo, J. (2017). A Practical Guide, with Theoretical Underpinnings, for Creating Effective Virtual Reality Learning Environments. Journal of Educational Technology Systems. 45(3), 343 – 364

O’Connor, E., McDonald, F., & Ruggiero, M. (2014). Scaffolding Complex Learning: Integrating 21st Century Thinking, Emerging Technologies, and Dynamic Design and Assessment to Expand Learning and Communication Opportunities. Journal Of Educational Technology Systems, 43(2), 199-226.